July 5, 2016 by

Cultural Exchange Boxes: Globally Connecting Elementary Students Around the World

This post is part of a series from ASCD Emerging Leaders who received an Innovation Grant. The ASCD Innovation Grant program is designed to support innovative approaches to whole child education; help emerging leaders grow professionally; and gather information that may help improve the way other educators learn, teach, and lead.

By Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman

Musiowsky Borneman Grants Inservice 300x300My move to Singapore was very new—only a couple of months old—when I got the e-mail about Innovation Grant opportunities for second year ASCD Emerging Leaders. Not only was my move the perfect chance to broaden my scope in education and become immersed in another culture, but it was also the perfect opportunity for fellow emerging leader Meghan Everette and me to guide our students in learning about culture.

Meghan’s students were all born in the United States and had spent their eight or nine years of life growing up in Alabama—in southern American culture. My students were “third culture kids”—children living in a culture different than their parents’ or their own and developing their understanding of life in a different way than Meghan’s students. My students had spent their seven or eight years of life traveling and living in different time zones and countries, from Norway to South Korea, and none of them called Singapore their home country.

Initially, the two classes sent videos to one another to introduce ourselves and share information about our home cultures. Then, we set up a schedule to send “Cultural Exchange Boxes,” which we filled with different artifacts, to one other throughout the year. We wanted to educate our students by exposing them to other ways of life, cultures, and people from across the world. This cultural exchange was a way for us to build open-mindedness, empathy, and knowledge of cultures that perhaps our students never even knew existed.

Students brainstormed items they wanted to share with the other class, and then the items were purchased or collected and sent. Boxes from Singapore included artifacts about Singapore’s National Holiday SG50, Chinese New Year, and children’s traditional toys of Singapore from long ago. Boxes from Alabama included artifacts related to American Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras, and the Fourth of July.

Although what we sent in the boxes may be what we consider the 5 Fs of culture (food, fashion, festivals, flags, and famous people) and merely the “tip of the iceberg” way to begin to understand another culture, it was really important for our students to have these tangibles as a way to connect with one another. By sharing durian flavored candies and moon pies and sending their nation’s flags and souvenirs, students became interested in one other on a deeper level. Questions from students ranged from “What is a merlion?” to “Why do people celebrate Mardi Gras?” Students read literature about the important figures who supported their nations, discovered the background of meaningful festivals, and asked about the origins of some of the French structures in the south when sharing photos on social media.

The value in the project was clear: students were the curious inquirers that they naturally are. They were excited to look at maps to see one another’s locations, to look at Google Maps and see how long it would take to fly in an airplane that far, and to see that there are students on the other side of the world doing many of the same things, like going on field trips and having field day, just in a different time zone. Sharing classroom activities and out-of-classroom adventures through Twitter was something that the students came to look forward to. Students often shared what they discovered at home, making our circle of learning even broader.

Another valuable piece of the project was that our colleagues inquired about how we started this exchange and wanted to plan the same opportunity for their students. Therefore, Meghan and I incorporated our global exchange into our presentation at the ASCD Annual Conference in Atlanta this year, sharing with other educators the details of our process.

This process of learning reminded us that people across the world are both similar and different. That is what is so intriguing about making these discoveries and learning from one another.

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Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman currently teaches primary school at ISS International School Singapore. She is an active member of the ASCD Emerging Leader Class of 2014. Her previous roles include preK instructional coordinator and coach for the New York City Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Education and elementary teacher/teacher leader at Alain L. Locke Magnet School for Environmental Stewardship in New York.